President Heads to Mideast to Help Restart Talks

Mr. Bush will try to reinvigorate negotiating sessions that have been marred by Israeli construction plans in disputed territory, and also by violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The three-day visit will be Mr. Bush’s first trip to Israel and the West Bank as president.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders met Tuesday ahead of Mr. Bush’s arrival to restart dialogue and seek some sort of progress from talks that have barely advanced since the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in November. The leaders hope to hammer out a final peace agreement by the end of this year.

“What we want President Bush to help us with is to make sure that 2008 will be a year of peace, a year of negotiations, a year for the treaty and President Bush now is the judge,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Associated Press.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the AP, “It is a good opportunity to keep the positive momentum in the peace process going as we move forward to historic reconciliation.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Olmert and Abbas agreed to form three “levels” of negotiations over the most contentious areas of dispute: final borders of a Palestinian state; the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees; and more immediate issues such as Israeli roadblocks.

At their previous meeting in Jerusalem on Dec. 27, the Palestinians agreed to stop focusing negotiations on their demand that Israel halt plans to expand a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Israel demanded in the talks that Palestinian forces be more effective in cracking down on militants in the West Bank.

“We’ve been very clear that what 2008 should be used for is to help the negotiating parties focus on the big picture, but also get into some of the nitty-gritty and very difficult issues, such as borders and settlements, that are going to have to be solved,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Tuesday.

“And so we are on track to advance these negotiations, but I don’t expect any large-scale, new agreements that would be made at the beginning of this negotiation. I think that’s going to have to come later in the year,” she said.

Complicating any potential deal is the fact that Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and opposes the peace drive, controls the Gaza Strip. In December, the number of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip surged to 303, the second most of any month last year, according to the Washington Post.

“Obviously the security issue is the Achilles heel of the process,” Regev said. “And it is very important for the Palestinians to work effectively to deal with these challenges.”

Israeli police, meanwhile, were strengthening security forces in Jerusalem for Mr. Bush’s visit. Police chief Micky Rosenfeld told the AP that 10,500 police will be stationed across the city.